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The lesson from Christchurch: there are no safe spaces

March 15, 2019

There are a few questions I’d like to ask the sensitive souls seeking confrontation-free safe spaces in which to take refuge at British and American universities.

At what point are you ready to leave your safe spaces? Is it when you go for your first job and find yourselves competing against people who haven’t a clue what a safe space is? Or is it when you become parents, and are presented with the shock of a mewling, shitting child whose desires, motivations and moods are a mystery to you? Or is it when you’re confronted with the death of your parents or other loved ones?

Is it when you see your first ISIS video, unmoderated by the supportive cocoon in which you’ve lived at home and throughout your education? Is it when you witness your first act of racism or religious hatred? Or when you witness your first act of violence, drunkenness or fentanyl overdose? Is it when you get trolled for the first time? Or is it, God forbid, when you’re involved in some kind of accident and end up in a hospital emergency room surrounded by suffering people?

If any of this stuff happened to you while you were unfolding your glistening wings at university, how do you think that listening to opinions contrary to your own or that of your peer group compared with those experiences on a scale of unpleasantness?

How would you have felt if, like my late father, you were expected to make a thirty-mile trip across London to the dentist by train and tube at the age of six? Or if, at the age of eighteen, you landed on a beach on D-Day amid flying shrapnel and body parts?

Asking such questions would of course be a pointless exercise – rhetoric dressed up as questions addressed to a generation that is as diverse as the rest of us, if not more so.

But these are thoughts that come to me in the light of the Christchurch shootings. My only personal connection with that awful event is that I spent much of the last ten years working around young people in the Middle East. Many of those I met were delightful people – idealistic and ambitious. I suspect that among the dead there might well be Saudis, Emiratis or Bahrainis. New Zealand is a popular destination for students from the Gulf and Saudi Arabia who go there on scholarships.

The last thing those worshippers would have expected in what seemed the safest of safe countries would have been bullets in their mosques.

Which leads me to suggest that there are no safe places – physical or emotional – to protect people, be they young or old, from the grim reality that we live in a tough world full of people who through their words and actions make every space unsafe.

So the sooner our young people realise that the safety they seek is a figment of the imagination, the sooner they will learn to cope with the world as it is, rather than as they would like it to be. Part of that learning is being able to form one’s own opinions rather than those of the herd, to confront opinions one doesn’t  like with logic rather than emotion. Those who go to university should not be seeking just to become archaeologists, engineers or accountants. They should be equipping themselves to deal with all the bad stuff that life throws at them. And you don’t do that in a safe space.

Perhaps I misunderstand the entire concept of safe spaces, but I fail to comprehend how “no-platforming” Germaine Greer, Tommy Robinson or that cricketer who made a few Oxford students uncomfortable with his silly sexist poem the other day will produce a generation of resilient individuals who can navigate successfully through societies – such as those in the UK and the USA – infested with violence, hatred and political extremism.

There are enough theories to explain the seeming fragility of those born in the new millennium to fill several learned books. Whether it be the effects of the social media, the financial crisis of 2008 or the infectious worries of earlier generations, there does seem to be a well of fear that causes many young people to shrink from the undeniable and take refuge in slavish unanimity of opinion. Or perhaps it’s all fake news.

Nonetheless, I have a sneaking feeling that those who are unfairly referred to as snowflakes have more resilience than we give them credit for. Once they move beyond the influence of the well-meaning crowd who encourage them to bury their heads in the cloistered sand, they will show their mettle. Amid the chaos and confusion currently being caused by their supposed elders and betters, they will certainly need to.

And the awful violence in Christchurch is one more reminder that the extremists don’t give a damn if they’re unable to debate their views in front of a bunch of privileged students in Oxford or Yale. They just get on and do what they do. If we believe that the world should be free of hatred, that’s the reality we need to deal with. We’re engaged in a battle of ideas that needs to be fought where the combatants are to be found. And denying the brightest and best the opportunity to come to grips with uncomfortable ideas will only weaken opposition against the extremists.

The woke need to wake up.


  1. debby moggio permalink

    I agree with the above essay. There is just one thing I would add. Be not afraid.
    Act on the information above. If you have children or grandchildren, if you interact with any children, let this be your guild.
    The children need to be prepared for whatever comes.
    Teach them to be curious and inquisitive.
    Teach them that failure is a learning opportunity.
    Teach them to have imagination.
    Teach them to think outside the box.
    Teach them to take responsibility for the things they choose to do and the things they choose NOT to do.
    Teach them to be independent.
    Teach them to get along without all the “modren” conveniences.
    Take them outdoors.
    Love them.

    • Thanks for your wise comments Debby. I agree with all of your points! S

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